By Marc Cortez

Is. Such a simple little word. You’d think that it couldn’t possibly cause any problems. And then Bill Clinton comes along and questions the meaning of is. And people laugh. But only because they haven’t stopped to realize that they don’t really know what it means.

What is is?

The question makes a little more sense when you realize that is is just a form of to be. So the question of is is really a question of being. What does it mean for something to be, to exist?

Philosophers and theologians have wrestled over the nature of existence for millennia. In recent discussions, the answers tend to gravitate around two poles:

Materialism: everything that exists (besides God) is just physical stuff (where “physical” just means whatever really is the most basic matter of the universe) and those things and processes that you can make out of physical stuff.

Dualism: there are two fundamental substances in the universe (usually “physical” substances and “spiritual” substance), and everything that exists is either one, the other, or a combination of the two.

This is overly simplified, of course. Many people have tried to get beyond the materialism/dualism divide by offering more nuanced forms of each. And others have rejected both poles and tried to find a different way forward.

That’s where Jonathan Edwards comes in. I’ve spent considerable time reading about dualist and materialist views of the universe. So when I recently had the opportunity to present a paper at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion (you can read about it here), I wanted to try something a little different. And Jonathan Edwards’ view of the universe is definitely a little different.

If you really want, you can read my entire paper here: “The Human Person as Communicative Event.” As you can probably guess from the title, my real goal was to understand how Edwards viewed the human person. But, to get there, I had to talk about his understanding of “being” itself.

Assuming that you don’t want to read the entire paper, which I can completely understand, let me summarize the argument.

Jonathan Edwards on “Being”

1. God Is the Only True Being

Edwards has a radically theocentric understanding of the universe. For him, God is the only being who truly exists. Strictly speaking, Edwards even goes so far as to say that God is the only substance. He is the one on whom all else depends.

But, if God is the only substance in the universe, that would seem to mean that God is really the only thing that exists. Everything else is just an extension or expression of him. And, if that’s the case, then Edwards is just some kind of pantheist. But Edwards doesn’t deny the existence of something besides God. He just has a very different take on what it means to say that something else exists in the world.

2. The Material World as Divine Event

Edwards begins with how we perceive physical objects. For example, sitting at my desk I notice that it is white, rectangular, and solid. Or, more precisely, I experience whiteness, solidity, and rectangularity. And it would be very weird to have those kinds of experiences unless something was actually there. (Assuming that I’m not sleeping or on drugs, both of which I think are safe assumptions.) So I draw the conclusion that there really is some object in front of me – a “desk” – that has those characteristics. For Edwards, that’s precisely where I go wrong.

Edwards agrees that there must be something “behind” the properties that I experience (whiteness, solidity, and rectangularity). But he argues that it’s not some object/substance. The thing behind the properties is nothing other than God himself. What I call a desk is just the act of God creating whiteness, solidity, and rectangularity. The “desk” is simply an event in which God acts in a particular way.

And, as an event, the desk has no real existence of its own. It only exists as long as God continues acting in that particular way. This means that God essentially re-creates the universe every moment. Or, said differently, every moment the universe exists as a new act of God.

Now, if God was fickle and acted in different ways every moment, we’d be in trouble. My “desk” could turn into a flamingo from one moment to the next. But God is not fickle. Instead, he operates in consistent and reliable ways. Indeed, God’s actions are so faithful that we can talk about natural “laws.” If I let go of my coffee mug, it will fall. That’s the law of gravity. But what we mean by “law” here is simply that God acts faithfully so that every time a mug is dropped in one moment it falls in the next. Studying the laws of nature is nothing more than studying God’s own actions in the universe.

3. The Immaterial World as Conscious Event

But Edwards isn’t done yet. A world full of material things isn’t enough. God isn’t acting in the universe just for the heck of it. He has a very specific purpose in mind: communication. Creation is all about God expressing his own glory. The Father, Son, and Spirit have been sharing in each other’s glory for all eternity. But in creation, God communicates his glory beyond the Trinity. And, to do that, he needs someone to receive the communication. That’s where we come in.

When God acts moment-by-moment to bring the material world into being, he also acts to create “conscious” beings who can perceive his acts and receive the communication of his glory. So, sitting at my desk right now, two things are happening. First, God acts to create properties like whiteness, rectangularity, and solidity. And second, God acts to create someone to consciously perceive those properties (i.e. me). If everything goes well, I will understand that the properties are God’s own actions and see the desk as an expression of God’s glory.

For Edwards, that’s how we should view all of creation. The tree outside my window is not some autonomous thing that exists on its own. It is God himself acting to express his glory. So when I perceive the tree, that is an event in which God reveals his glory in the world.

Jonathan Edwards on the Human Person

I won’t say much here, other than to point out that Edwards’ view of the human person is perfectly consistent with his view of creation as a whole. As a “material” thing, my body is nothing other than God acting in the world to create the properties that I associate with my body. And, as an “immaterial” thing, I am nothing more than that which consciously perceives God’s actions. Thus, every human person exists every moment as an event of God’s glory.

Does It Matter?

That’s always the question in discussions like this. And Edwards definitely thought his approach mattered. I won’t try to unpack all of his reasons for viewing the universe in this way. But here are three reasons that he thought a radically theocentric view of the universe was necessary. And I think it’s safe to say that all three reasons are still worth considering today.

Deism: Edwards’ chief target was deism, which viewed the universe as essentially autonomous and self-contained. With the rise of modern science, Edwards thought more people were coming to view the universe as something completely disconnected from God. Sure he may have created everything in the beginning. But not rolls along pretty much on its own. And that was clearly unacceptable for Edwards. Any truly Christian view of the universe must see it as absolutely dependent on God every moment

Bible: The Bible describes the universe as something that is ephemeral and fleeting when compared to God, and it also declares that the universe depends on God to sustain it every moment. Although most Christian thinkers affirm both truths, Edwards took this language very seriously. At the very least, his approach presses us to consider more carefully what it means to say that the universe “depends” on God or that he “sustains” it in existence.

Science: In Edwards’ day, modern science had called into question older views of “being.” What does it mean to call something a “substance” in a world of atoms and forces? So many people were starting to think that Christian theology and modern science were at odds with one another. Edwards’ solution was to come up with a way of viewing the universe that retained a strong emphasis on God’s involvement with the world while making room for newer scientific discoveries.

I won’t way that I’m entirely convinced by Edwards. But I loved his emphasis on seeing every created thing as an immediate expression of God’s glory. The whole universe becomes thoroughly sacramental – i.e. filled with God’s presence. It changes the way you see a tree when you think of it as something that God is doing right now to communicate his glory to you. It’s not just that the true is beautiful and that this makes you think of God’s glory. It’s that the tree itself is God’s own action and that you have been created at this moment to see the tree as an expression of his glory. It’s a different way of thinking; but it’s pretty cool.

Marc Cortez is a Theology Professor and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. Marc blogs at Everyday Theology, where this article first appeared.

If you’re interested in the relationship between philosophy and theology, you might also enjoy the other posts in this series: